Rajesh Mehra: An untapped entity

Delhi Silpi Chakra group member, Rajesh Mehra's life narratives.


Search the name Rajesh on the Internet and you’ll be flooded with either late actor Rajesh Khanna’s achievements, his IMDB page or asked to Join Facebook to connect with Rajesh Profiles. What’s lost here is the name of a man who worked with the likes of MF Husain, had numerous paintings showcased in famous exhibits during his career as a painter and is still approached by many curators and galleries. Lost is the man with a name once held so high.

Paintings of Rajesh Mehra
Paintings of Rajesh Mehra.Image Source: http://artanddeal.in/cms/?p=3366

Rajesh Mehra, a well-known painter during his time stopped painting around 40 years ago. Manik Sharma interviews Mehra and narrates the journey of a now 84 year-old painter from his days of sheen to a time where convincing insurance agents for a medical fills up his day.

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Mehra was born in Karolbagh, Delhi in 1932. Joining the Delhi Polytechnic College (later renamed the Delhi College of Art) was his first step towards discovering his passion for paintings. “Unlike today, where courses are thin, we had to learn everything from cooking, to art to literature. It was exhausting at times but I loved it,” says Rajesh Mehra. Starting by putting up paintings in the open space of his college he earned a reputation worthy enough to be invited by BC Sanyal to join Shilpi Chakra. In 1953 he started painting carriages to put some money in his pocket for all the expensive canvases and paints. He had the fire in him but not the money to fuel it.

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With the advent of mid-50’s MF Husain’s popularity grew nationwide and just like every other painter in town Rajesh Mehra too dreamt of a rendezvous with a man that had reached the apex of a profession he so loved. “I desperately wanted to meet Husain. So in 1956 I heard talk about Husain being assigned a mural by one of the education departments in the capital. Out of sheer luck Husain was about to visit a photography studio run by my friend Narendra Pal Singh. I got to know from there that Husain stayed in Delhi at the house of critic M Krishnan, near Ganga Ram hospital. I decided I would meet him at any cost,” Mehra exclaims. He did finally get to meet Husain and was advised to show up to the department’s office where he was offered to assist Husain saab and paid Rs.500 for the job. During his tenure as an assistant, when irked by his growing sense of restlessness he walked up to MF Husain and asked him “I just want to be a painter, but I don’t know where to start.Mujhe nahi pataa kahan se shuru karun.” The reply to a question so naïve stuck with him and guided him in his future endeavours, ‘apne aapse shuru karo‘ words by Husain ji.

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By 1964, he had gained appreciation by prominent figures after the first exhibition of Group 1890 had taken place. And in the same year he travelled to Europe, a country with a culture so different that he felt out of his place on coming back to India. He said, “There was a general, more collective approach towards supporting art in Europe. In India, on the other hand, most of these people were more than happy to step on each other’s foot.” Regardless of his concern over way things worked back in India and the unfortunate fall out of the Group 1890 movement, Mehra had bills to pay and hence had to join as a professor at the College of Art on his return. “When I came back from London, I wasn’t exactly welcomed and soon learned that I had been demoted. Although jobs didn’t really matter as much to me, but it was still a blow to my reputation,” he says.

MehraInLondon1965 ImageSource : http://www.firstpost.com/living/the-man-who-wasnt-there-why-rajesh-mehras-canvasses-suddenly-came-to-an-end-2867822.html
MehraInLondon1965 ImageSource : http://www.firstpost.com/living/the-man-who-wasnt-there-why-rajesh-mehras-canvasses-suddenly-came-to-an-end-2867822.html

The turning point for him was his relocation out of Karolbagh, Delhi. He had a connection to the room he painted in, a connection, which he couldn’t build in his new home in Jangpura. In 1975 he travelled to the mountains to rejuvenate himself and lived in Ranikhet for about two months in a cottage owned by a British Woman. But with both his parents falling critically ill he lost that peace in him, a peace that he never gained back again. Though he made sure to keep one last exhibition in 1978 but this one unlike others did not see any invitations going out to critics.

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Today, his room looks like a warehouse for canvasses; canvasses that he will not sell even after countless galleries approached him. “I want to keep them for the time that I’m alive. God knows what will happen to them once I’m dead,” he says. He chooses to remain an untapped entity.